Chinese President Xi Jinping's wife Peng Li Yuan (left) shows her appreciation after Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha (second right) and his wife Naraporn Chan-o-cha (second left), present her with a cake to celebrate her birthday as Xi (right) looks on. / Thai Government House photo via Bangkok Post
Southeast Asia’s summit season has come and gone with takeaways that concurrently eased geopolitical tensions and underlined risks that could lead to future global conflict. The three major summits—the East Asia Summit (EAS) in Phnom Penh, the G20 in Bali, and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) in Bangkok—also demonstrated that the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020-21 has been practically overcome as in-person meetings are back in full force. Overall, the three hosts came away with mixed highlights.
To be sure, it will be many years, if ever again, that three Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries will host these three summits consecutively. While the ASEAN-related summits featuring the EAS are held annually on a rotational basis in Southeast Asia, with Apec hosted in the region every other year, the G20 is a rare occurrence because Indonesia is its only ASEAN member. That these three summits aligned in Southeast Asia this month has been extraordinary.
These in-person summits were also a reminder of the nature of the human condition and the indispensability of interpersonal communication. Although China still appears internally mired under COVID restrictions, just about all other countries have reopened. While the two-year pandemic hiatus from in-person meetings did not cause the global tensions we are seeing from the Russian invasion of Ukraine to the United States-China confrontation, it was certainly not conducive to face-to-face communication and better understanding. By their personal nature, these leaders’ meetings are always a net positive in global politics. On substance, we can tease out highlights by major players and countries.
The Cambodian leadership of the EAS and other ASEAN-related summits was largely successful. As ASEAN chair this year, Prime Minister Hun Sen capitalized on the occasion to burnish his statesman-like stature. The fact that he has shrewdly and systematically destroyed the opposing Cambodia National Rescue Party in recent years helped pave the way for Hun Sen’s summit showing. With the all-clear sign at home for sustained electoral dictatorship, the Cambodian strongman was able to concentrate on his foreign policy legacy and statesmanship. Noticeably, Cambodia this year co-sponsored and supported the two principal United Nations resolutions to condemn Russia’s aggression against the Ukrainian people and subsequent annexation of eastern parts of their country, whereas Thailand supported the former motion and shamefully abstained from the latter.
In Phnom Penh, the key takeaway may have been Beijing’s proposal for a “3.0” upgraded version of the China-ASEAN Free Trade Agreement beyond the first iteration more than a decade ago and the more recent Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. Tabled by Premier Li Keqiang, this geoeconomic manoeuver appears crafted to outflank the US’ Indo-Pacific Economic Framework. The conspicuous blot in Phnom Penh was ASEAN’s inability to do anything constructive about Myanmar’s junta and its perpetration of a heinous war against its own citizens.
Viewed as a whole, the summit season belonged to Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo who staked his credibility on the line by personally visiting both Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier in the year. He was able to reap dividends from his geopolitical investments by providing a platform for Zelensky to state his peace terms and for the first official presidential meeting between Joe Biden and Xi Jinping. The conciliatory Xi-Biden tete-a-tete cooled down bilateral temperatures markedly. Xi and Biden agreed that their superpower competition is longer-term but that outright conflict is not intended by either side.
Among the plethora of sideline and bilateral meetings, the Xi-Biden talk was the paramount achievement of the summit season. In addition, G20 leaders were able to issue a joint statement, which set the tone for Apec, denouncing Russia’s war in Ukraine. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov also did not walk out of the room in the process.
For Apec, the main deliverable was a 23-point declaration by its 21 member economies. The third point reinforced the UN resolutions to condemn Russia in line with what G20 leaders had agreed to in Bali. Proposed and propelled by Thailand’s host government, the Bangkok Goals for Bio-Circular-Green (BCG) Economy were another highlight along the lines of resilience, sustainability, and inclusiveness, representing low and unopposed common denominators. An overlooked achievement of Bangkok was to provide an opportunity for Xi to fruitfully meet with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida for the first time, with follow-ups at senior levels on the way.
For the Thai government, the highlight for domestic consumption may have been the individual royal audiences between His Majesty King Maha Vajiralongkorn and each of the Apec leaders, except representatives of Hong Kong and Chinese Taipei who were introduced in tandem. This undertaking may have involved scheduling reshuffles to clear the deck of activities on the evening of Friday, Nov. 18. As such, the gala dinner was reportedly moved to a day earlier, and the dinner between Xi and Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha scheduled for Friday thus became lunch on Saturday.
While Xi may have been miffed about his timetable being mucked about, the host made up for it by throwing a birthday celebration over lunch for the Chinese leader’s wife. Gen. Prayut and senior government and business leaders also saw Xi and his wife off by the side of the waiting Air China plane, waving and bowing repeatedly. For Prayut, as the torch passes to the US as host next year, all eyes will be on how the former general will convert his Apec results into political moves as Thailand gears up for a general election, which must take place by early May at the latest.
For the main players involved, Hun Sen got as much personal prestige as he could out of spearheading ASEAN and its related summits, and Jokowi will benefit from the generated momentum of the G20 going into 2023 as the next ASEAN chair, while Prayut got by with potential domestic dividends.
For the main countries, Russia was a loser. Hardly anything can be remembered about Russia’s presence at these meetings, which Putin was forced to skip entirely. For China, Xi’s reengagements and international travel to top meetings after gaining a third five-year presidential term suggest that Beijing’s geostrategy to reclaim greatness among nations is intact and on track, despite persistent pandemic problems at home.
For the US, Biden’s absence at Apec was felt. Had the US leader come to Bangkok, Xi would not have been able to steal the show with such ease. This goes to show why the US, as represented by both Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, kept repeating the regional message that it is “here to stay.” As Xi showed, China is “here, period”. It is something for Washington to consider next year when it is not preoccupied by election cycles.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak is a professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science in Bangkok.
This article first appeared in The Bangkok Post.